The Greens, economics and fairytales

Issue 

The Greens, economics and fairytales

The Greens
By Bob Brown and Peter Singer
The Text Publishing Company, 1996. 198 pp., $14.95
Reviewed by Lisa Macdonald
This book by Green Senate candidates Bob Brown and Peter Singer is the first attempt to systematically document the ideas, aspirations, history and approach of the Greens in Australia. The book is easy to read and provides a thorough summary of the multiple crises of the global environment. It is full of useful facts and figures which provide a detailed map of the catalysts for the environment movement and the formation of Green parties. The sections dealing with the Greens' philosophy and vision for the future set out clear ethical statements about the state of the world and the need for urgent and fundamental change which no thoughtful and progressive person could disagree with. The problem is that The Greens, while outlining many rational, creative and sometimes radical solutions to specific problems, ultimately avoids confronting the political structures and processes blocking their stated goals. Thus the authors remain imprisoned in a sort of well-intentioned but futile fantasy of a green future. Section 5, on "Green Economics", comes closest to addressing concretely the question of how to get there. It is from this section, read in conjunction with the Australian Greens' economic policy framework released in January, that some insight into the Greens' basic strategic perspective is possible. In contrast to their coverage of the Australian Democrats' campaign and policies, the capitalist media have launched a savage pre-election attack on the Greens, painting them as a serious threat to democracy, business, the economy, social stability — indeed everything the ruling elite hold dear. David Forman, author of the cover story of the February 19 Business Review Weekly titled "The Green Menace", announces, "The Greens simply do not view politics in the same way as the Government, the Opposition or the Democrats", adding that "The timber industry has struggled to make the point ... that the Greens must be seen as dedicated to overthrowing the system rather than reforming it". The irony is that, a careful examination of the Greens' economic policies reveals that capitalism actually has little to worry about. Both the book and the party's policies contain a massive contradiction between the Greens' anti-capitalist rhetoric and their avoidance of anything resembling a real challenge to capitalism. Within the principles of ecological integrity, equity, empowerment and choice, and caring and cooperation, the Greens' policy goals are: better distribution of work and income, a more equitable taxation system and an improved social safety net. These goals are correctly formulated in a global perspective which addresses the problems of "poverty and imbalance of resources" by calling for the cancellation of all Third World debt; radical reform of the World Trade Organisation; regulation of transnational corporations; and the prohibition of monopolies, toxic waste exports, the use of child labour and numerous other environmentally and socially destructive practices of international capitalism. The Greens' proposals for achieving these admirable goals, however, all depend on using and reforming, not dismantling, capitalist structures, generally through legislative change or lobbying decision-makers. In the end, their program is founded on the belief that capitalism can be made significantly more ecologically and socially friendly without changing its basic nature. The Greens do not challenge the framework within which the economic imperatives, directions and policies of the major parties are formulated. They commit themselves to "balancing the recurrent budget over the business cycle" and despite their principle that "those sectors of the community least able to bear the cost of redressing environmental degradation will not be disadvantaged", a number of the reforms they propose ultimately place the costs of change on the majority of ordinary people. Alongside a carbon tax, for example, the Greens propose "a shift of charges for motor vehicle registration and compulsory third party insurance to a fuel tax so that car owners only pay in relation to the amount of travelling they do". Their accompanying commitment to better public transport funding leaves many unanswered questions for all those who, for various reasons, rely on private transport. Only the wealthy, who can absorb the extra costs, would remain unaffected. The Greens' policies also include a range of eco-taxes "to incorporate the costs of resource use and disposal into prices to encourage efficient use and to reduce pollution". Again, the reliance on user-pays as a disincentive does not address the relative financial advantage of some users. The Greens have a social justice goal that First World countries cancel all Third World debt. But rather than this debt being simply written off — sacrificed by the mega-wealthy international banks — the Greens want to pass this cost onto the general populations of the OECD countries. The Greens state that they "want to break the stranglehold of economic rationalists over government policy" and that the answers "cannot come from market forces". Yet their proposals for environmental and social change are still argued in the framework and methods of capitalist markets. For example, they justify their "strong regulation" policies in terms that they "can assist business to become more competitive". In what would be a massive public subsidy of private industry, the Greens say they will "offer positive incentives like tax deductions, rebates and enhanced depreciation allowances to businesses investing in technology or capital expenditure which reduces resource use, waste and pollution". As well as targeting government spending to the greening of industry, the Greens say they will require up to 5% of capital from superannuation funds to be used in projects which "enhance Australia's export capacity, international responsibilities, environmental sustainability and social infrastructure". Like the major capitalist parties, the Greens are happy to make workers' money available to industry to fix up the mess that it, not workers, created. The Greens' illusions in the possibility of eradicating the causes of environmental and social destruction without dismantling capitalism are most clear in their policies on international trade and debt. While recognising that transnational corporations "often play one country off against another to secure maximum financial advantage", the Greens nevertheless aim to "reform the World Trade Organisation" and "regulate transnational corporations in terms of environmental impact and sustainability, social impact, labour relations and democratic participation". How will the Greens achieve this body-blow to imperialism? They will "investigate means through which both the Federal Government and the United Nations can improve the business practice of transnational corporations ... including through anti-monopoly legislation". The belief in the ability of parliaments to substantially influence, let alone direct, the activities of multinational capitalists is fantasy. In an implicit acknowledgment of this, the Greens resort to the capitalist market, to try to regulate the damage of multinationals. For example, they advocate "the development of preferential trading status [for countries] based on principles of ecological sustainability and social justice and aid". Because it is the activities of multinational capital which primarily determine countries' performance on these criteria, however, such measures would further disadvantage the poorest countries, where multinational corporations can move freely in and out while getting away with the worst environmental and social conduct. Even more futile is the intention to "intensively lobby other OECD countries to cancel all debts of developing countries ... and achieve radical reform of the World Bank and the IMF or establish a new lending institution". Why would these central institutions of international capital voluntarily undermine their own existence? The denial of the nature of international capitalism leads the Greens to betray their own internationalism. They argue, for instance, that poorly regulated foreign trade results in the "loss of national economic sovereignty" and advocate policies which will "increase Australia's self-reliance by limiting net foreign debt and current account deficits". This ignores the facts that Australia's "economic sovereignty" is largely irrelevant in terms of its impact on living standards to all Australians except the big capitalists based in this country, and that the bulk of foreign debt is not ours, but owed by the major corporations. The idea that governments, not big corporations, are central to economic decision-making and power leads the Greens to massive illusions in national parliaments' capacity to direct economic development. The Greens will fail to achieve their stated goals while they accept the very system in which environmental destruction and social injustice is endemic. The Greens must acknowledge the primacy of class relations and the fundamentally contrary interests of the working class and capitalist class, as well as the fact that the latter survives only by accumulating profit via the exploitation of workers and the environment. To achieve their goal this class and the whole economic system that accompanies it must be dismantled. This is not to say that the system is monolithic and unresponsive to public and consequently governmental pressure. Important reforms have been achieved since the beginning of the modern environment movement. But creating a thoroughly ecological society — a "green future" — will ultimately require breaking, not simply attempting to regulate, capital's power over production decisions. And that means eradicating, not simply limiting, the right to profit at the expense of others.